Sunday, August 03, 2008

A Naked Man and a Bunch of Crazy Pigs

Jeremiah 6:13-15
"From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. 'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush. So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them," says the LORD.

"This is what the LORD says: "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls."

Luke 8:27-37

When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don't torture me!"

For Jesus had commanded the evil spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places. Jesus asked him, "What is your name?" "Legion," he replied, because many demons had gone into him. And they begged him repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss. A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into them, and he gave them permission.

When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus' feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.

Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.

When I was in high school, there was a local legend about the Blue Ghost of Maddox Bridge Road. Some 10 or 20 years earlier, two high school students had been out on a date.

They were driving back home when the young boy lost control of the car. The car had been going 80 miles per hour on this winding, twisting country road, and when the driver lost control, the car ran off the road right at the bridge. The car went into the Saluda River. Two days later, they found the body of the teenage girl, but they never found the boy’s body.

Over time, local legend grew about how at midnight, you could sometimes see a blue light in the water -- the ghost of the teenage boy looking for his girl friend.

One day, my best friend and I started talking to each other at school about how we had seen the Blue Ghost of Maddox Bridge Road. We were talking in low, confidential tones – we talked in low, confidential tones because my buddy and I knew that the only way to be sure that people around us would eavesdrop was for us to talk in low, confidential tones.

We quietly talked about how we were going to go back out there that night to see if we could once again see the Blue Ghost of Maddox Bridge Road.

That night, a dozen cars gathered together on Maddox Bridge Road, and sure enough, down at the edge of the river, there was a blue light. The ghost of Maddox Bridge Road. It took half an hour for someone to get the courage to walk through the woods to the river's edge and to investigate the blue light. Slowly, carefully, he walked down to the light, and just as he was within 10 or 20 feet, my best friend and I jumped out of the woods and yelled, "AHHHHHHHGGGHH."
Our poor victim ran all the way back to road while the rest of us laughed and laughed because after all, the ghost was nothing more than a flash light placed inside a blue glass vase.

A lot of us love ghost stories. Horror movies. Halloween tricks.

And here in Luke's gospel, there is a wonderfully frightening story. Here are the elements of a classic ghost story that would make anyone's hair stand up in fear.

There is a demon-possessed man.

But -- that is not what frightens people in the story.

This man has been naked and homeless for years. He hangs around the cemetery. He shouts at Jesus.

But -- that is not what frightens people in this story.

When Jesus asks his name, there is that dramatic moment when the demon-possessed man says, "Legion" because there are so many demons in him.

But -- that is not what frightens people in this story.

When Jesus exorcises the demons, he allows them to go into a herd of pigs. The pigs go wild and run off a cliff to their deaths. What a strange image that is.

And yet, that is not what is frightening to the people.

You know what scares the people?

Luke writes this in his book: "When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus' feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid."


I have to tell you, if I am walking the road and some naked man comes out of the cemetery yelling at me, that would unnerve me.

But in the story, these people have become accustomed to this.

What frightens them is that this man who was evil, becomes good.

What frightens them is the holy, not the unholy.

It is not just discomfort they feel. It is fear, chilled blood, weak kneed fear. Luke goes onto say in his Gospel, "Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. Then all the people of the region of the asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear."

Does this not strike you as strange -- that these people are afraid of the wrong things and comfortable with the wrong things.

These people are afraid of that which ought to comfort them.

And they are very much at ease with the very things that ought to haunt them with fear.

And you know the scariest thing of all? Their story is our story.

Because the greatest problem facing our society today is that we have become all too comfortable with evil.

William Bennett wrote a little book a few years ago which he named, "The Death of Outrage." There was a time when society showed outrage at misconduct. But no more. We accept the flaws of others so easily, that we accept their misconduct without hesitation. It is not that we forgive these people -- we simply excuse their behavior. In the words of our Old Testament lesson, we have forgotten how to blush. We have no shame.

What happens when people have no sense of shame? The result is Hitler's Germany where 6 million Jews and 2 or 3 million others were gassed to death. The result is Jeffrey Dahmer who killed and ate 15 victims. The result is a school shooting. And a home invasion. And a murder of a police officer.

What happens when people have no sense of shame? The result is people who do drugs, pre-teens who engage in unsafe, premarital sex, and people who engage in shop-lifting and outright theft time after time after time.

A mother, whose teenage son was murdered a few years ago in Philadelphia, tells us what happens when people have no shame: "You go to court and the guy is looking at you, like, 'What's the problem? So what if I killed your son?'" (Newsweek, February 6, 1995, p.22).

The haunting aspect of this passage from Luke is that the people were so comfortable with the presence of evil. Here is a man filled with so many demons that his name is Legion. Luke talks about him as a frightening and dangerous individual. People had to chain him hand and foot, and it appears people in the community simply took turns watching over him. But no one is bothered by that. They are so comfortable with evil that what frightens them is the presence of Christ.
In the Old Testament lesson, the prophet Jeremiah talks about the spiritual condition of the people. Their lifestyles have degenerated. The cities are filled with crime. And Jeremiah looks around at them and says (Jer 6:15), "Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush."

Ouch! That sounds like our culture.

There is something missing in our society.

We have no shame. We are so accepting of the behavior and the lifestyles of the immoral that we have forgotten how to blush.

But I think there is something else that is missing in our society besides shame.

It is the presence of Christ in our community.

In the Gospel of Luke, the community can live with a crazy, naked man living in the cemetery.

But they throw Christ out of their community.

And by doing that, they throw out the only hope their community has for redemption.

What is wrong with our community is not so much the presence of drugs and alcohol abuse, and violence and crime. What is wrong is that there is no Christian presence in our community to offer hope and healing.

We come in here, in the safety of our sanctuary and we worship God, but outside in the world, we do not live the Christian life. We see our classmates getting drunk, and we accept it. We hear racist comments, and we are silent. We witness greed, and we join in.

What’s wrong with our society is that it is missing something -- us.

What’s missing is that we are not acting like Christians.

We have gotten so used to the evil in our culture, that we have stopped speaking out against evil.

We are no longer afraid of the demons in our society.

We have made peace with evil.

As a society, we accept drug and alcohol abuse, we accept violence in our homes, we accept racism, and we not only accept but almost welcome and encourage some immoral behaviors.
During the years of World War II and the Cold War, there was a word for this -- appeasement.

Appeasement described the efforts of peace at any cost and of accepting evil.

In 1938, Britain and France, still trying to recover from World War I, signed the Munich Pact, which basically said that they would accept Hitler Germany's take over of part of Czechoslovakia, as long as Germany agreed not to take any other territory. The policy became known as appeasement, and it didn't work. Germany eventually took over most of Czechoslovakia, and then a few months later, swept into Poland.

Appeasement didn't work. World War II began.

We are in a spiritual warfare, and we do not win it by appeasement, by accepting the unacceptable. We win our spiritual warfare by standing firm in our faith.

And if you think that by YOUR living the Christian life will have no effect, think again. One life can make all of the difference.

Rosa Parks is one of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. She is not remembered for any speeches she gave, or books she wrote, or meetings she had with the President, or for organizing millions of people to march on Washington. She is remembered for riding in a bus in a community that was segregated. Segregation was a way of life. It was an evil that everyone lived with. It was an evil that was accepted. It was an evil people were comfortable with. Like the naked, demon-possessed man in the cemetery, no one was frightened by it. But Rosa Parks got on a bus one day and said, "no more. Not today." And she took a seat where she wasn't supposed to sit.

One voice, one action, added with a lot of other single voices made a change.

There is something missing in our culture -- salt. Light. A Christian voice to take a stand against the evil among us.

Copyright 2008, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh